Tripods legs and heads are not the most enthralling subject in the universe. At first glance, they can seem to be boring pieces of gear. They support the camera. Big deal. What you may not realize is that cheap tripod systems usually leave a lot of room for improvement. That’s not to say that you need to spend top dollar to get the absolute best system, but it's important to avoid compromising to the point that your work suffers. In this article, I’ll introduce you to a variety of tripod and fluid head systems for every budget, featuring products that offer high quality for their price points.
If you're a photographer who wants to take advantage of the video features in your camera, you may assume that the high-quality ball head you already own will cover your needs. The problem is that ball heads are only great at positioning the camera and locking it down. When shooting video, you need a “fluid head” that allows smooth motion as you pan and tilt the camera. A viscous fluid is used in the head to damp movement in a way that reduces jerkiness, and feathers starts and stops. If you've ever tried shooting video with a ball head, you will find that using a good fluid head on a sturdy set of legs can improve the quality of your video substantially, and add lots of creative expression with smooth and accurate camera movements.
Most fluid heads can tilt up or down at least 75º and many will tilt down to 90º, allowing you to shoot directly over a subject. 360º panning is the norm. Though there are many fluid heads out there, not all have the same features. Do some research on any potential heads you are considering to make sure they have the features you need. Keep in mind any accessories you’ll use with your camera when looking at the operable weight range of any tripod.
Higher-quality fluid heads have variable tilt and drag resistance adjustments to better control movement. Additional drag allows for slower and more precise pans and tilts, which is important—especially when you're more zoomed in. Lower levels of drag allow you to pan and tilt quickly, while still offering some resistance to smooth out the movements. The ability to dial in the right amount of resistance makes tracking subjects much more accurate and even pleasurable.
Another important feature to have in a video head is the ability to make counterbalance adjustments. Counterbalance will allow you to tilt the head up or down and let go without the head tilting further. Without, or with too little counterbalance, you need to constantly hold the head in position so it doesn’t fall forward or back. With the proper amount of counterbalance, the head stays at whatever level of tilt you leave it, allowing you to take your hands off the camera with confidence. However, too much counterbalance adjustment makes the head want to stay level, and you will find yourself fighting to tilt up or down.
Bowl Mount vs. Column
Many tripods come with center columns that allow you to raise the level of the camera quickly—without having to raise all three legs. Sometimes it’s useful to have the ability to add a foot or two of extra height when your tripod legs are maxed out. Height gained this way comes at a cost, though. The farther away from the apex of the tripod legs the head is positioned, the less stable the camera becomes with the increased likelihood of vibration. The lack of lateral stability makes external forces, such as wind, more likely to degrade the shot.
A head mounted on a "bowl mount" allows you to level the camera independently of the tripod legs quickly, while also providing more stability (because the head is attached at the apex of the legs). With one hand you loosen the half-ball leveler, and with the other you adjust the camera to a level position. Tighten the half-ball leveler and you’re finished. Without a bowl mount, you need to adjust all three tripod legs independently. This process is time consuming, and it's a lot more difficult to achieve a perfectly level position. If you think you are going to need additional height, as well as stability, it’s best to purchase longer legs. Many fluid heads come with a bowl mount, but if you have one that doesn’t, a leveling base attachment will allow you to attach flat-base fluid heads to your tripod.
Carbon Fiber vs. Aluminum Legs
One of the main reasons to go with carbon fiber is the advantage of lighter weight, which we all can appreciate. On the other hand, having too light of a tripod potentially could be an issue in high winds. Many carbon fiber tripods come with a hook from which to hang weights, to add stability. The added weight of aluminum legs is more of a hindrance than a bonus, but I personally use both aluminum and carbon fiber legs. As for vibration reduction, wood is the best material, followed by carbon fiber, then aluminum. Because wooden tripods are rare today, carbon fiber is the most attractive material for professional use. However, there is yet another factor: price. Aluminum legs are less expensive than carbon fiber, putting them back in the running for which material some of us will choose.
It’s an Investment
Whatever tripod system you’re interested in, I think it’s best not to put low price at the top of the list of positive attributes. A good tripod will last your entire career if you take care of it. Investing a bit more of your hard-earned money into a better system, from the start, will ultimately save you money because you won’t have to keep replacing parts, or the entire tripod. However, we understand that not everyone is ready for a huge investment, and baby steps are sometimes the prudent path, so we’ll start with some inexpensive yet decent-quality tripods and escalate from there.
If you’re just getting into into tripods for the first time, and expenses must be kept to a minimum, the Bescor TH-770 is for mid-sized cameras up to 15 lb. It's lightweight and portable and comes with a tripod and bowl-mounted head combo with a mid-level spreader for stability, and a soft carrying case. There are no drag or counterbalance adjustments, but the head can be locked down in any position. Another inexpensive tripod head combo is the VariZoom VZ-TK75A, which features a 65mm bowl, a mid-level spreader, and rubber feet. This one is designed to work with mid-size camcorders up to 10 lb.
It’s not necessary to purchase a head-and-legs combo system. It’s okay to mix and match—as long as the weight ratings work together. You could pair something like the MVH500AH Fluid Video Head with Flat Base from Manfrotto with the MVT502AM Aluminum Telescopic Twin Leg Video Tripod by using the Manfrotto 520BALLSH 75mm Short Half-Ball to connect them. The MVH500AH head has a maximum weight load of 11 lb and professional-quality fluid cartridges on both its pan and tilt axes. It also has a preset spring-loaded counterbalance of 5.3 lb, its lateral tilt range is -70°/+90°, and it provides 360° panning rotation. The MVT502AM aluminum legs are designed for DSLRs, camcorders, and light video cameras. The telescopic twin-leg structure and ellipse-profile aluminum tubes provide rigid and secure support, along with leg locking collars, first-stage spreader, and high-grip rubber feet.
There are also many tripod systems that come with everything all in one package, like the Sachtler Ace M Fluid Head with 2-Stage Aluminum Tripod & Mid-Level Spreader. This is a full tripod system for videographers who use DSLR cameras and smaller camcorders up to 8.8 lb. The head’s SA drag system enables smooth, precise panning and tilting via its pan bar, with three grades of drag in both the horizontal and vertical dimensions, plus the option of zero drag. The head's tilt range is +90° to -75°.
Manfrotto has a similarly priced “all-in-one” system comprising the 502HD Ball Base Fluid Head and the 546GB Tripod, which includes a 75mm ball-base fluid video head, a bowl-base aluminum tripod, and a padded carrying bag. The tripod is a 2-stage, 3-section affair that extends to 62.4". It features spiked feet with rubber overshoes, allowing setups on both smooth and uneven surfaces, and it includes a telescopic ground-level spreader that keeps the legs exactly where you need them.
If you’re not interested in legs with a ground spreader, you can just get the 502HD Head with 75mm Half Ball, and find a tripod that suits your exact needs. Personally, I like having long legs with no spreader. This allows me to adjust the leg’s individual angle or level quickly on uneven surfaces. I use the Gitzo Series 3 6X Systematic Carbon Fiber 4-Section X-Long Tripod with a maximum height of 6.6' and a negligible weight of only 4.9 lb. The legs fold out to allow me to get very low to the ground, and the carbon fiber makes trekking around less tiresome. I’ve added Gitzo's SYSTEMATIC 75mm Bowl Head Adapter, which lets me use any 75mm half-ball fluid video head on a SYSTEMATIC Series 2, 3, or 4 tripod. The head I use with these Series 3 legs to support my Sony EX1 cameras is the Sachtler FSB-8, a fluid head designed to work with the handheld size of DV, DVCAM, HVX, and HDV camcorders. This head offers a 20-lb capacity and Sachtler's Sideload mechanism, which boasts an exceptionally large sliding range of 120mm (4.7"). It also features a 10-step counterbalance. This ensures extremely fine and fast balancing.
Moving to the higher end, if you like to keep with the all-in-one systems, the Sachtler 0750 FSB-8T Tripod System with Speed Lock 75 Tripod features the FSB-8T fluid head, Speedlock 75 carbon-fiber tripod, and a soft carrying case. This system offers Sachtler quality in a complete tripod system. Sachtler is a highly respected brand that I’ve been working with for the last five years, and I have not had any issues with it, to date. This is important to me, because I like to think about the work at hand rather than troubleshooting issues from gear breaking down. That’s not to say that any of the brands in this article are prone to issues, because they're all great, reliable brands. I just want to reiterate the benefits of investing in quality gear up front, and not having to think about it again.
If you’re working mainly with DSLR-sized cameras (and the rigs associated with them), the Sachtler 0475 FSB-6 Carbon-Fiber Tripod System is the same system, but it includes the smaller and more affordable FSB-6 fluid head, Speedlock 75 carbon-fiber tripod, mid-level spreader, and case. The Sachtler ENG 75/2 D HD Aluminum Tripod Legs with 75mm Bowl are also available, if you’ve got a head already picked out. Sachtler also has a cool item that can help you level your camera even faster. The Sachtler SpeedLevel Clamp for Sachtler 100mm Fluid Heads is innovatively designed with squeeze handles that let you more accurately and easily level your fluid head.
There are lots of options in the mid-level price range, and a great bang-for-your-buck system is the Manfrotto 504HD Video Fluid Head with 536 4-Section Carbon Fiber Tripod. Its reliable performance and light weight make it a solid choice. The towering maximum height of 79.2" (203 cm) of the legs allows you to get above the crowd, or work on steep hillsides, and the rubber feet (with retractable spikes) help keep the system firmly in place. For larger cameras, the Manfrotto 509HD Video Head with 545B Aluminum Tripod Legs, Mid-spreader & a Padded Bag is a solid solution for professional video camera systems weighing up to 29 lb. Its long top plate provides more stability to heavier cameras and their associated accessories. It’s got four steps of counterbalancing, and the innovative Advanced Balancing Recorder (ABR)—a new patented system by Manfrotto that speeds up operability by recording the perfect balanced position of your camera so that it can be recalled later.
For people who shoot with lighter cameras and desire a highly portable form factor, the Miller Solo DV10 Carbon Fiber Tripod System offers the same control features, fluid drag design, and accessories as Miller's larger broadcast products. This gets you high performance and quality at a more reasonable price. The legs are light and sturdy with a height range from 14.5–69.2". There’s also a less expensive Miller Solo DV10 Aluminum Tripod System, which features the same DV10 head that supports smaller cameras within the range of 5 to 10 lb.
There are many options out there when it comes to finding the perfect tripod system for your needs. This article only scratches the surface of the many choices available for each system mentioned. Take some time and read up on the specs and capabilities of as many of these systems as you can. Watch video reviews, and go on forums to get feedback from people who use these products every day. A good tripod system will outlast multiple camera upgrades, so choose wisely. The more informed you are, the more likely you’ll be to find a system that will suit your needs and last your entire career.